Sports fandom is, to use a tired though useful analogy, akin to being in a relationship. When it’s going well, the ball miraculously finds its way to the right place over and over again, and there is no sinking suspicion that your real life is being lived elsewhere. And when it’s going poorly, there are two overwhelming questions that dig at your back: How did I get here? Is it too late to make a quiet exit?
The how is a complicated question. On one hand, the origin-story of your particular sports fandom can be circuitous. Take mine. In the late ’50s, my father went to Stanford, and when I was beginning to form my team likes and dislikes in the ’80s, John Elway was Stanford’s starting quarterback. When Denver drafted him, I became a Broncos fan, and I remain one, even though I have been to Denver exactly one time in my life.
But in most circumstances, fandom is shaped by local allegiances. Team pride becomes regional pride. If you live in Green Bay, there is a good chance that you are a Packers fan, not only because it’s the only game in town, but also because the team has always been consistently good.
What makes this choice more complicated is when your particular locality gives you more than one option in any given sport.
How is it that fans choose between two teams in the same city? What does the choice say about you as a fan? When I was living in New York, I tried to figure out the implications of choosing the Yankees over the Mets. Then, the Yankees were easily collecting World Series titles, and it seemed to me that liking the Yankees was an easy but morally suspect decision. Trying to give the fans more credit, I wondered if it was an issue of class, or about the boroughs. But what I realized was that there was no clear checklist for why people liked the team they did. I had a friend in Queens who grew up in the shadow of Shea Stadium and was a die-hard Yankees fan.
The same issues are present in Chicago. President Obama’s love of the White Sox may have something to do with his having been a community organizer on the South Side. Or it may be about something else entirely. I want the choice between two teams occupying the same city to make clear, logical sense, and I think it does to the person making the decision. It’s just that there are such individual decisions spread throughout a crowd of 40,000 fans at any given game.
As we enter the third week of the NBA season, this issue of regional choices has developed an interesting twist, most notably in Los Angeles and New York. The Lakers and Knicks have always been the logical choice in these cities. This is particularly the case in L.A., where the Clippers have been, well, the Clippers for a very long time. But now, there are two legitimate games in each town.
In L.A., NBA fans have an embarrassment of riches. This has always been a Laker town because the team has consistently granted the fan base its ultimate wish: championships. And with the hiring of Mike D’Antoni, the Lakers chose nostalgia, not of the near-triangle past, but of the more distant Showtime years. Watching a well-tuned D’Antoni team is genuinely fun. The main hitch here is that D’Antoni’s system requires young legs, and while the Lakers are many things, they are not young. In contrast, the Clippers are. With a youthful and exciting core, the Clippers are able to match up well against elite teams, as they showed several days ago when they beat the Heat. At 7-2, they have one of the best records in the league. And of course their linchpin: Chris Paul.
In New York, with the Nets’ arrival in Brooklyn from nearby New Jersey, there are decisions to be made. The Knicks are off to one of their fastest starts in decades, but if you have been to Brooklyn lately, there is so much to like about the Nets.
Basketball fans in both cities are in the midst of a rare moment. Both sets of teams have solid prospects and so this may be a good time as any to switch out, to get a fresh start without seeming like a turncoat.
Going from the Knicks to the Nets does not mean you are trading up, but rather looking across the bridge and deciding on someone who likes hiking on the weekends over someone who prefers watching movies. You are switching one rich owner who built the team around a rejuvenated Carmelo Anthony (but may have been shortsighted in letting Jeremy Lin walk) for another who had the smarts to let Jay-Z become his primary brand manager. Out here on the West Coast, you are choosing between Kobe, young Dwight, and a Steve Nash who might be in decline versus the best point guard in the game dishing the ball to some pretty good options.
The choice isn’t easy. But it’s nice to have one.